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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Behind Madison bar raids

Fourteen years ago, Madison Police Department Sgt. Tony Fiore began his law enforcement career patrolling downtown Madison at nights, work he now supervises for the Central District’s Community Policing Team: tavern safety inspections, or “bar checks.”

To non-law enforcement, they are known as bar raids. To underage patrons, the uniformed police officers are bogeymen, the sight of them entering the bar sometimes the first in a series of unfortunate events.

University of Wisconsin-Madison junior Liz, who declined to give her full name because she is under the legal drinking, was at Hawk’s Bar & Grill on Thursday, Sept. 20. When officers entered for an inspection, she and several friends hunkered down in their seats to avoid underage citations.

“You see a spectrum of behavior [when officers enter a bar],” Sgt. Fiore said. “Some will play it cool and conspicuously ignore you, some people come up to you and play it super-cool.”

It is the “officer’s impression,” according to Fiore, that determines who will be asked to show identification.

Two of Liz’s friends tried to leave, likely part of a rush of underage drinkers to the exits—a phenomenon Fiore also identified—and were picked out by officers and issued citations and $429 fines.

“If a ton of people start leaving, setting down full drinks, it kind of gives us some feedback,” he said.

Many students surveyed by the Daily Cardinal, including one underage junior issued a $300 fine (and also declined to use her name), said they see bar raids as a “quick and easy way” for the to city make money off citations fees, though MPD does not maintain underage citation quotas for bar checks, according to Officer Chad Crose of Central District’s Community Policing Team.

Underage drinking is only one of many Alcohol License Review Committee regulations bars must comply with to keep their liquor licenses. Other guidelines deal with patron management, crowd capacity, noise levels, and other safety concerns.

However, Liz said she doesn’t remember the officers doing anything but issuing citations that Thursday at Hawk’s.

“I understand how people see [bar checks], because the most visible thing is certainly the ticket writing,” Fiore said. “It’s certainly part of that inspection, but it’s just a part.”

Of the roughly 170 downtown establishments permitted by Madison’s Alcohol License Review Committee to serve alcohol downtown, the Community Policing Team routinely inspects 74, checking two to four bars each night.

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According to Fiore, an average bar check results in one to three citations for underage drinking and around 10 “on the high side.”

But the number of citations issued sometimes has little to do with the success of a check, he added.

“If we come to a bar and there are greater concerns, they take precedent and priority,” Fiore said. “We wouldn’t bypass a safety issue to deal with underage patrons.”

On Sept. 13, the Central District launched a Twitter account (@MPDCentralCPT) to help publicize the sites of potential house party raids and bar checks as a way to help students avoid drinking tickets.

“If our only goal was to catch underage patrons at a bar, we’d certainly wouldn’t be putting it out on Twitter,” Fiore said. “I think people need to appreciate that…they have to make their own choices as far as if [going to bars underage] is still an activity they continue to do.”

Underage drinkers have been going to bars in Madison since Sgt. Fiore began policing fourteen years ago. Raids, or the fear of them, have not stopped Liz, her friends and thousands of others underage from enjoying Madison’s bar scene.

As long as students remain undeterred, it seems bar raids and the habitual fear of them will also persevere.

“I go to the bars knowing that it could potentially get raided,” Liz said, adding that she plans to try the bars again this weekend. “If you get lucky you don’t get a ticket.”

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